Welcome to March! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.
Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation (or perhaps Set The Tape) but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.
Let’s start this month with Books…
Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.
Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?
As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.
The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.
JACK BRISTOW: There are rules, Sydney!
SYDNEY BRISTOW: Then you break them!
Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.
The complexities of the narrative inside JJ Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.
Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.
Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.
Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.
There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.
Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.